The Danger & Thrill of Wingsuit Flying: To Do Or Not To Do

A professional wingsuit pilot just after base-jumping
A professional wingsuit pilot just after base-jumping

Since the first human dared to dream, he dared to dream to fly in the sky, just like those free birds gliding through the vast and open ocean of the sky. Wingsuits are specially designed aerodynamic suits that help the wearer get the closest experience to real ‘flying’ by creating sufficient surface area to the body to allow significant lift that in turn allows the wearer to fly some serious horizontal distances while keeping the descent rate minimum. Yes, it is as thrilling as it sounds. And perhaps more dangerous than it sounds. Most recently, BMW has invented a new way to wingsuit flying — an electrified version of it. Still, the business of suiting up and jumping from great heights is both as fascinating and risky. But the idea of being able to fly, however short or long in terms of distances covered, is what makes this business a highly coveted one.

Wingsuit Flying — what is it?

As stated before, wingsuit flying is the practice of dressing up in an aerodynamically designed suit and jumping from high altitudes in order to cover more distances horizontally while keeping the descent rate minimum. Now let’s look at each aspect of it:

  • The suit basically adds more surface area to the human body, allowing him to generate more lift than the drag generated by a free-falling body. This stage in the flying is known as the ‘glide’ where modern flyers can go as far as two and half meters or more horizontally for every meter of descent.
  • Wingsuit flyers can jump from a cliff, a helicopter, a paraglider, a hot air-balloon or an aircraft. This is merely known as ‘launch’ where the pilot can control the flying by properly spreading their arms and legs at relevant intervals. The technique for jumping varies with regard to where the jump is made from.
  • Wingsuit flying consists of both the suit and a parachute. Basically it is just the total enjoyment of gravity in a free-fall type of situation. So, ‘deployment’ of a parachute at the exact time is paramount to the entire process. Generally this is the stage where anything can go wrong and they do so quite often.

Wingsuit Flying — when did it start?

It all started when a man now known as ‘The Flying Tailor’, Franz Reichelt jumped from the Eiffel Tower on 4 February, 1912 to test his own design of a combination of a parachute and a wing. The unfortunate inventor died when he fell 57 meters head-first unable to deploy the parachute. It left a hole in the ground alright, but gave birth to the pursuit of better ways ‘to fly’.

It was not until the 1999 World Free-fall Convention at Quincy where multiple designs of the wingsuit by inventors like Patrick de Gayardon, Sammy Popov and Chuck Raggs were successfully tested that a new era of wingsuit flying emerged. Soon after, in 1999, Jari Kuosma, widely regarded as the father of modern wingsuit flying, established Birdman Inc. that totally revamped the whole scene.

Birdman Inc., besides being the manufacturer of commercial wingsuits, became the first organization to train the general public on safe wingsuit flying. Robert Pečnik designed the Birdman Classic suit for the general skydiving public in 1999. Soon a lot of other names were entering the commercial market such as Squirrel Wingsuits, TonySuits and Phoenix-Fly and “the most dangerous feat of the skydiving world” was, well, flying to new heights.

Wingsuit Flying — why is it feared?

  • For a start, you have to jump from ridiculous heights to be able to fly considerable distances. This is definitely not for those who are scared of heights.
  • A number of things can go wrong in all three stages of flying. A pilot needs to be completely and consciously aware of all the little things to do while in flight. A slight mistake can very easily lead to a terrible disaster. Impeccable timing and a perfect technique is absolutely necessary to ensure a safe flight.
  • Despite the existence of numerous training programs and strictly followed regulations, there is one case of severe injury for every 500 jumps. Be it an inventor himself or an accomplished skydiver with the BASE Jumping World Title under his belt or a motivated and highly experienced adventurer with more than 500 successful jumps on her folio — death often casts her gloomy shadow on anyone regardless of their experience, jump counts or knowledge.

But the notion of danger is relative and to experience the priceless has always been a fodder for human accomplishments. Wingsuit flying, undoubtedly dangerous, is here to stay as the adventure of a lifetime, though it can also effectively shorten that!

Wingsuit Flying — how can you fly?

If you are one of those few humans who like to take on danger and thrill for breakfast, lunch and dinner; you can chose either a RAPS (Ram Air Progression System) or an AFF (Accelerated Free-Fall) course which gives you the required knowledge and techniques to become a skydiver. While RAPS can be a better choice for beginners and amateurs as it offers a slower progression curve of learning, AFF can be the best experience in skydiving as you jump with two instructors by your side and analyze videos of your jumps to pinpoint and correct every mistake. With both the programs however, you need to complete at least ten jumps before you can don the wingsuit but that is the only way to do it, for your own safety. (At least 200 skydives are the prerequisite criteria for an aspiring professional wingsuit pilot.) Also, you can opt for a tandem skydive or a tandem wingsuit jump where you will need no skill of your own as a highly qualified instructor jumps with you and also does every hard work for you. Still remember that tandem wingsuit jumps are a bit on the risky side as the mass to surface area ratio suffers drastically. Oh and this is unsurprisingly one of the costliest sports. An approximation for a full-fledged, qualified, solo wingsuit flyer with all the gears and the suit can come around $16000, excluding travel costs. For more information regarding pricing and dropzone details, you can visit wingsuitfly.com.

To Do Or Not To Do?

Imagine being in the moment, enjoying freedom and tranquility at a height of about 12000ft+ or getting the closest to being a super-hero! Today’s suits are more controllable and maneuverable, allowing you to “fly at all sorts of angles and speeds, on your belly or your back, and you really can get within a few inches of a targeted spot if you want.” On 6 November, 2020, Peter Salzmann flew BMW’s ‘Electrified Wingsuit’ that essentially put an assistive propulsive technology to his design of a wingsuit. It marked the beginning of increased gliding time, taking off from greater heights, flying further than ever before and perhaps most importantly, landing safer in a suitable place. The future has already arrived and it can make wingsuit flying more accessible to a larger audience. Learn more about the BMW revolution here.

** All photos are under the Creative Commons License **

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